Business Profiles

Keeping technology simple for 40 years – Richie Richards – Tech Group

Forty years on and Electrotech founder Richie Richards hasn’t changed his philosophy when it comes to technology – “keep it simple…you should be able to ignore the user manual and just turn it on”.

A visit to Richie’s art deco Kennedy Road premises, once the heart of the business he founded in 1984, is now a historical journey of how technology has changed. The building was once the home of Gilberd & Co, a local soft drink and cordial producer who operated there from 1929-1989 having started the business in the 1870’s. Electrotech moved into these premises in the late 1980’s, enabling the company to continue to expand.

Nowadays the building is not used as a day-to-day workplace, but contains years of Electrotech memorabilia which sits alongside an impressive collection of Apple computers and iPhones that the business has used since 1984. A separate building on the large property showcases a vast collection of vintage soft drink bottles and memorabilia relating to the building and other local aerated bottling companies.

Richie’s inspiration to set up his first of many businesses was prompted during an industry lockout while working at Pan Pac in 1983. An electrician by trade, Richie gained technical electrical control experience firstly at the paper and pulp mill in Kawerau before moving to a well-paid job at Pan Pac in Hawke’s Bay.

“I was the highest hourly paid employee at Pan Pac at the time and it was great, until a company lockout (strike) happened and I realised that I was earning a lot but my commitments were even higher.” “I had no work, so had to go looking for something and ended up on a trolley at a local woolstore and that certainly wasn’t going to provide me with enough income.”

“I picked up some electrical work with Napier based Perreaux Sound which made high-end stereo equipment and when the lockout ended I went back to Pan Pac briefly but I knew I had to give it a go and start my own business.”

Keeping it simple and having a bit of fun have been hallmarks since the beginning. Richie didn’t want his surname to be part of the company name as that might limit expansion ambitions as well as any future succession plans. Also for a bit of fun he registered Electrotech and nearly every other company since then on April Fool’s Day! From humble beginnings of building switchboards initially in the garage at home, then premises in Niven St, Richie would take on any electrical job for a dollar.

“In those days I was pretty much a one-man band and I had very little money to set up in business. I pinched the family Holden station wagon and sold the family caravan, which gave me enough money to buy a little bit of stock to get me going.”

During the 1990s and early 2000s Electrotech grew and expanded its premises footprint to the Gilberd building in Kennedy Road; and buying or established off-shoot businesses such as an electrical supplies wholesale business and a refrigeration business he previously supplied to after they ran into financial difficulty. “I was busy designing and installing refrigeration control systems for supermarkets across New Zealand, in kiwifruit cool stores in Bay of Plenty and work for New Zealand Breweries.

It was a big commitment… I would be working 80-90 hours a week and we had a lot of overheads. Amongst other things, Electrotech was also the control system provider for the roll out of cellphone towers across New Zealand for Ericsson Communications. Electrotech continues to provide services to most of Hawke’s Bay companies in one form or another through its various divisions.
This extends to both national and international companies throughout New Zealand and in Australia and the Pacific Islands. This can vary from providing and maintaining Airfield Lighting Controls for Airways New Zealand to manufacturing lighting for prisons and through to switchboards for local commercial and international customers.

“I’ve been very fortunate to have more successes than failures. The successes have been bloody brilliant and the failures are part of that learning curve in business.

“The Global Financial Crisis kicked us around a lot. I was focused on growth, and we knew some of the companies within the Group weren’t doing as well as others. “It’s a bit like having a car with 12 tyres and a couple of them are flat, we still drive along; but that was a dumb way of looking at it, because if they don’t make money they shouldn’t be there and that was the realisation I came to.”

He says at the time there was rumours around the traps that the business might not survive and Richie took action. “I had to take a very long hard look at what we were going to do. I had the option of simply closing up and paying everyone out. It was really a The original company car in 1984 knife edge type thing, but I decided to keep going.” He restructured, which added to the rumours but rather than hide away, he came out swinging. “I went and bought a brand-new BMW and drove it around town and it sent a strong message that we weren’t going out of business.”

“It’s a psychological thing and it seemed contrary to what I felt was the right thing to do when you’re going through tough times, which is not to spend on luxury items, but I needed to reverse the whole thing and it had the desired effect; I wanted to give our customer base confidence that all was ok. “Electrotech grew and diversified into a range of other trades and a company was set up for each one.

Since the companies covered so many different types of businesses, it was difficult to promote them all at the same time so ‘Tech Group of Companies’ was formed to provide a single entity to promote all of the services of the group along with centralising all of the administration, management and backroom functions for the companies.”

Today Tech Group is the combination of three main trades companies, with a total of 80 staff and all based in Napier – Electrotech Controls Ltd, and Firetech Services Ltd in Onekawa Industrial, and Tech Mechanical Services Ltd in Pandora. They work alongside each other on many local and nationwide projects. Electrotech has continued as an electrical engineering and electrical contracting company; providing tailor-made solutions for customers ranging from food and beverage facilities, to apartment developers and residential customers; designing and installing sophisticated wiring solutions.

Electrotech are also experts in security, audio, phone and data systems, switchboards, calibration and weights/scales, industrial automation and HVAC controls. Firetech provides installation, testing and inspections of building fire and service equipment as well as buildings for Building Warrant of Fitness certifications.

The teams in Firetech are experts in the design, installation, testing and service of fire-related systems, such as fire alarm, detection and sprinkler systems, special hazard systems (Gasflood), emergency lighting systems and riser main & hydrant systems. Firetech is FPA Certified, Insurance Council approved, IQP registered and is an ISO9001:2015 certified company in both sprinkler and fire detection systems.

Tech Mechanical is the combination of HVAC, plumbing, gasfitting & drainlaying, sheetmetal, and engineering teams. Tech Mechanical design, build and install for small and large projects across Hawke’s Bay and NZ. Tech Mechanical has a large and long-standing customer base covering many Ministry of Justice sites, Health facilities, and Wineries to name a few.

The trades also provide domestic work for heating, air conditioning, plumbing, gasfitting, drainlaying, engineering, sheetmetal. Tech Mechanical is also an agent for the supply and installation of Moduline Fencing. Long serving employee Brad Ellison has bought into the business, starting firstly with Tech Mechanical and now a shareholder in Firetech, with the intention in time of becoming the sole owner. Meanwhile, Richie keeps an eye on the bigger picture, looking for new opportunities, including those that arise with a new government.

“Who knows what the next decade looks like. We’ve made some changes in our businesses and I’ve stepped away from the day to day running of the businesses and assumed the role of group chief executive.”

As a collector and tech enthusiast Richie says he loves getting behind the wheel of modern BMWs. It’s not too hard for him to find one either, he has a collection of the M series. “I love the technology in modern cars, and I collect the M series of BMW’s. So, I’ve got the 1M, M3, M4, M5, M6 and M8.”

“We’re already starting to see cars with driver assist and it won’t be too long before we’ll be in self drive cars, which will come in very handy on a night out,” he laughs.

“For computers, Apple has always been the best for me. It’s the most user friendly and interactive unlike Microsoft which you must do upgrades all the time whereas Apple kept it simple. “Every piece of technology talks to each other – your iPhone to iPad, to Mac and its simple – that’s what we’ve done with our approach to technology at Tech Group, to simplify it for the user as much as possible.”

As Richie fondly reflects on 40 years in business, he is proud that the business has survived and prospered; has maintained many long-standing clients and has staff that he regards as family.

“Every employee is part of our Tech family. We share the spoils of success with staff functions, golf teams, and fundraisers; and when times are tough, we rally together. Rallying together was evident in recent times of COVID lockdowns, flooding and Cyclone Gabrielle.

Many of our staff here have been with us for over 10 years now, and then quite a few over 20-25 years. There is a lot of great knowledge and experience now being passed down to the next generation of employees. Who knows what is around the corner, but we have a sound business in place, with loyal and hardworking teams that will continue to evolve.”